Education in the world that’s coming next

A friend recently sent me this video: It’s 15 minutes, but well worth a view.  The presenter, Will Richardson, argues that the American educational system is set up around an old (I might say modernist) model of doing things: the point of our current educational system is to impart a large body of knowledge that is standard to everyone, and thus everyone can be tested on this knowledge using standardized testing.  Richardson contends, however, that the direction of the future of education is anything but this direction.  Instead, education will be much more individualized and rely much more heavily on accessing information and experts from around the world through the Internet.  In this manner, learners will pursue learning through collaborative processes oriented toward engaging with real-world scenarios.

After thinking to myself, “This guy’s right,” and “Why didn’t I think about the role of education in What Comes Next until now?” I had three other reactions:

First, as someone who thinks about both American educational policy and the future of America, I thought about how America needs to radically revamp its educational structure to prepare for the future of education.  Saying that America needs to radically revamp its educational structure is nothing new, and thus far actual examples of that have been few and far between.  But let’s face it – America is no longer a country that derives its economic wealth primarily from making things.  It’s a country that derives its economic wealth primarily from making ideas.  And the ability to make ideas depends on having a good educational system.  The recent dramatic cuts to educational budgets and attacks on teachers around the country are evidence to me that America’s days as world hegemon are limited, as we’re selling out the economic future of our country for a small amount of tax savings.  Richardson’s video is further evidence of the problems America is going to have maintaining its position in the world because of problems with its educational system.  Not that I consider America pre-eminence something that must be carried into the future.  I’m not nationalist like that.  I just worry about how America will react when it figures out it’s not on top anymore.

Second, as someone who aspires to teach, I wondered how this new model of education will affect my future career path.  This was only partly a consideration of what this will do to my job market.  I know that people will still need to learn in the future, in fact, even more so than today, so I’m not worried about the market for teaching going away.  The video did make me realize that how teaching looks in the future may be radically different, even at the collegiate level where I hope to be.  This reflection made me again glad that I’ve begun experimenting with blogging and other forms of social media, because I think that’s as good a way as any for me to prepare for whatever the future of education will be.

Third, as a missiologist, I pondered how this change in education will affect missions and people’s incentives to convert to Christianity.  Educational missions were a huge enterprise for Christian missions in the 19th and 20th centuries.  They paid off both in terms of converts and influence in society.  These were a very modern style of education.  In fact, one of the big attractions of Christianity for people outside the West was (and continues to be) that it was a path to modernization, through literacy, education, medicine, and the like.  Arguably, modern education has roots in Christianity through movements like Pietism.  Modern education also has other roots elsewhere, but I think there is a connection between it and Christianity.  As far as I can see, education in what comes next does not have roots in Christianity.  It has its roots in the Internet, which is by no means a Christian creation.

This leads me to two further questions: First, will Christians be able to adapt to new, what-comes-next forms of education so that they can continue to offer that as an ancillary to the gospel?  I think it will be most interesting here to see what Pentecostals do with education, since I think Pentecostalism and Independency may be the face of Christianity in what comes next.  Second, if Christianity isn’t able to offer education as an ancillary to the gospel, what will it offer?  Sure, Christians would like to think that people convert to Christianity because of the power and attraction of the gospel by itself, and sometimes people do.  My read on the history of mission, though, is that people are more likely to be attracted to the gospel when it comes with a related package of individual and societal benefits, whether that be the attraction of Roman Civilization to the Germans, literacy around the world in the 19th century, or healing from disease in many places and times throughout history.  I don’t see these ancillaries to the gospel as undercutting the primacy of the gospel.  I see them as part of the gospel: testimony to God’s desire to transform and redeem creation in all the ways in which it can be transformed and redeemed.  Education might continue to be part of that transformation, or it might be replaced by something else, and that would be fine, too.  But I think it’s worth thinking about how Christianity can seek to transform the world in ways that will seem vital and attractive in the world that’s coming next.


Scott (Helena, MT) posted on November 29, 2011 at 2:25 pm

I like Richardson’s talk, but it seems to me that he is conflating two different issues: one is the problem of standardized testing with too high stakes attached to it, and the other is the ways that our access to information has changed. I don’t think the technology is as direct an answer as he thinks it is.

In my experience, education should include at least these five things:(1) memorization of important facts, terms, and concepts as building blocks for learning, (2) interaction and discussion among students and teachers, (3) teachers serving as personal role models for students, (4) use of art, examples, and experiences that help link the course content to the students’ experience, and (5) slow, careful study of complex ideas.

Standardized tests will always have the problem that people can improve their ability to beat the test without really learning the materials. But even under the best of circumstances, I would imagine they can really only test (1) and (5). And number (5) seems a stretch.

I don’t think traditional models of teaching are all that broken –– we’ve just set up testing that makes it much harder for teachers to cover all 5 of these point, plus we don’t have as many talented teachers since educated women now have other career options. Technology can help us do a better job in every part of teaching, but all 5 of the points I’ve suggested can be done without computers as well. I’m no expert, but I would guess that truly effective education has *always* used all 5 of these. Certainly ancient philosophers used all 5.

A kid who knows how to use the computer may have advantages. But in my view, a kid who is taught well in the traditional way will do just fine in our world, because technology only amplifies and speeds up the way good learning has always happened. Reading snippets from twitter feeds never made anyone smart, and it never will. If a kid can read an in-depth article from a single click, rather than having to walk to the library, that may help her learning quite a lot; if the internet means she’ll only skim a wikipedia entry instead of reading something more serious, it may hurt her learning instead.

I think all 5 points that I’ve listed are also part of Christian education, and I don’t see them changing. Maybe people used to put up with Christian education that just gave facts, but only if they didn’t have any other choice. And on the other side, if Christian teachers are losing our audience, I don’t think changing technology is going to fix anything. A bad teacher will not win many people even if they use technology, and a good teacher will find an audience of learners with nothing but her/himself and chalk-board.

If Richardson isn’t careful, he’s going to inspire some philanthropist to donate a bunch of iPhones to a school somewhere, and it’s not going to help them one bit. Or he might inspire churches to start cramming our Christian education into a computer-age mold, with the same results.

Thanks for the post!

David W. Scott posted on November 29, 2011 at 4:14 pm

Thanks for your thoughtful comment. I appreciate your delineation of the five components necessary for a good education and your affirmation that, while technology may be helpful in all of these areas, each of them can be accomplished with traditional methods as well. Still, I would argue that if students can choose between an education which accomplishes all five objectives traditionally and one which accomplishes all five objectives through extensive use of technology, many of them would prefer the latter.

Nevertheless, I completely agree that we need to be reflective about our use of technology in pedagogy and not use technology just for the sake of using technology. I would agree with what you suggest in your comment about accessing in-depth articles as a criteria for what constitutes a “good” use of technology: Technology benefits pedagogy when it expands the resources students can access or the type of experiences students can have. Teachers, however, are responsible for ensuring that students are using resources fully and deeply, whether they are accessed in traditional or technologically-innovative ways.

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